YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers won’t necessarily find on their websites.
This month, 13 authors discuss everything from ice skating to writing about sex. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Brandy Colbert, author of Finding Yvonne
“Why do you write about sex so much?”
The teen girl glanced around shyly after her question. I was surprised but pleased that she asked, especially at a book festival for teens.
There was a time when even saying the word “sex” embarrassed me. It wasn’t openly discussed in the Bible Belt, where I was raised. And growing up in a Christian family that attended church every Sunday, it was understood that sex wasn’t supposed to be part of my life until I was married.
I wasn’t having sex in high school and, quite honestly, I don’t think I was ready. But I never thought I’d wait until marriage. And when we were teens, most of my friends didn’t think twice about sleeping with someone they were into. There was, of course, your garden-variety high school slut-shaming, but that didn’t stop anyone from doing what they wanted. Sex didn’t ruin their reputations or their college prospects or their lives, as we were led to believe back then.
Sex is in all of my young adult novels, and it has a fairly important showing in my third book, Finding Yvonne. As the main character took shape, I realized she was my most overtly sexual protagonist to date, and she was wholly unapologetic about it. Though she practices safe sex, she does get pregnant (not a spoiler), but as her best friend says in the novel, it’s not a punishment.
I can’t think of many YA novels where black girls are allowed to be openly sexual without judgment or repercussions, and we deserve those stories, too. As a teen, I wasn’t having sex, but I was very interested in sex, and I wish I’d had more books that openly discussed it—books that provided a safe space to learn about my changing body and desires from stories about girls who looked like me.
Books that didn’t make me feel ashamed about something that is so natural.
Katie Henry, author of of Heretics Anonymous
“Saint Catherine was a lady who wouldn’t marry a Pagan king so they stuck her on a wheel with spikes and she died.”
That’s the story I told on All Saints’ Day, 1997, in the Sunday School room of my Catholic church, dressed vaguely like a first-century virgin martyr. As I listened to my classmates talk about their name saints, a pattern emerged. The boy saints had a range of experiences—doctor, soldier, literal dragon-slayer. The girl saints—some barely teenagers—mostly refused marriages and were gruesomely martyred. St. Catherine’s life pricked at my skin like an itchy dress. I didn’t want to wear her story.
Fifteen years later, I was at college and spending exactly zero Sundays at church. While researching a paper, I stumbled across the blog of a young, Catholic, aspiring feminist theologian. She’d written about a first-century female martyr. It was that same girl, Catherine of Alexandria. But she told a different story.
Saint Catherine was born in a society where her only use was as an bargaining chip between men, and she refused to be sold. “My body belongs to me and my God,” Catherine said, “and even if you break every bone in my body, I will not bend.” She was a radical, defiant teenage girl who died for the right to make her own choices.
That night, I went to the library and loaded my arms with new books. Just because I’d heard the story one way, just because I’d told the story that way didn’t mean it was the only way to tell it. Catherine’s life could be a packaged morality tale, something to convince little girls their virginity was their only worth. But it could also tell little girls that iron will and unflinching bravery exist in them, too.
Sometimes stories—and names—feel like a hand-me-down that’s already too small. And sometimes, they fit like a glove.
Jessi Kirby, author of The Other Side of Lost
The Other Side of Lost is about a journey. It’s the story of a girl who is completely lost to herself, and of the long and winding route she takes to find her way back to who she is. It’s also a story that is important to me personally.
It didn’t begin this way, but writing it became a way to honor a dear friend who I lost two years ago, just as I was beginning to write it.
That said, my greatest hope is that this book is a celebration of life, and of being here, now, in the present moment. Of having courage when you are most afraid. Of finding you’re stronger than you think you are. And of finding beauty in the world and stillness within yourself. Because those are the things that my friend taught me to do in her time here, and they are things that I’ve tried to live and remember every day since she’s been gone.
Those are also the reminders I hope to pass on to readers. Especially young women. In a world driven by social media and curated images of perfection, I hope to inspire readers to look within themselves for what is true and real, and to value that above the flawless images presented to us on social media.
I also hope to inspire readers to get out into nature! Having grown up in the mountains of California, I’ve always loved the outdoors. But writing this book took that love to another level for me.
While I was drafting, an old friend called me up and invited me to hike Mount Whitney with her. The route that Mari takes in the story begins in Yosemite Valley, and ends atop Mount Whitney, so of course I said yes.
I didn’t realize what a big yes that was until we started training. That trail is no joke, and neither are the physical and mental strength it takes to push up mountains steeper than you’ve ever climbed, and over more miles than you imagined your body could handle. But just like Mari, I learned I could, and like Mari, I made it to the Whitney summit, which is one of the proudest moments of my life.
All of this is to say my whole heart is wrapped up in this story, so I hope you enjoy it. Thank you so much for being willing to make the journey with me!
Kit Frick, author of See all the Stars
In fifth grade, one of my two best friends—let’s call her Jen—ditched me for the cool girls. I was crushed. But even worse, I didn’t get it.
I was cool, wasn’t I? That couldn’t be why Jen didn’t want to hang out with me anymore. She didn’t exactly inform me I was being Officially Ditched or why. It just happened. One day, she stopped sitting next to me in class and making plans to hang out after school. We were dunzo.
So I confronted her. Jen was hanging out on the swings—not swinging, just hanging out, because cool—with her new friends. I don’t remember exactly what I said (probably something along the lines of, “Why aren’t you talking to me?”) but I vividly remember what she said in response: “You wear your bangs in those same stupid barrettes every day. It’s just not cool.”
One of Jen’s new friends—let’s call her Autumn—took me aside and “kindly” informed me that it wasn’t just my inability to accessorize. Everyone was wearing their backpack with one strap, not two, hadn’t I noticed? And also I should probably start shaving my legs. If I wanted friends, I needed to get with the program.
The truth was, I hadn’t noticed the changing backpack styles, and razors frankly scared me. It seemed like “cool” was a formula I was never going to crack. And I didn’t. I tried and failed until I finally stopped caring. I spent way, way too much time as a preteen and teen desperate for others’ approval. I’m not exactly sure when that stopped. But you know what the good news is? It did. And now, I wouldn’t trade my friendships—real, equal friendships—for the world.
Lamar Giles, editor of Fresh Ink
I’m not great at sports.
There are really only two I like at all: basketball and mixed martial arts. I made several (unsuccessful) athletic attempts in high school. Track (I quit—all that running, yuck). Wrestling (I quit—lost my first match, then sprained an ankle in practice around the same time my McDonald’s application came through, so making money was way more appealing than ALL THAT RUNNING). Wrestling again (long story but didn’t work out then, either). To be clear, quitting things you start isn’t necessarily ideal, and I’m not advocating for that. I am encouraging you to not start things for the wrong reasons.
The reason I tried any of that stuff was because it got drilled into me that boys (especially in my hometown) played sports. I felt I had to and when I was miserable doing so, I felt like a double failure for not sticking it out. Particularly since most of the adults in my life let me know that “quitters never succeed.” Thing was, my entire high school career I wrote for my school paper. And on weekends when games/matches/meets happened, I was tinkering with a novel I’d started when I was fourteen. And in my twenties, I was up at 5 a.m. working on my craft before heading to my day job. It’s been thirty years, and writing is something I never quit. Though no one but me appreciated the commitment back then.
Sometime ago, an athletic friend asked if I regretted not being on one of those high school teams because I didn’t have the memories him and other guys had of those glory days. I told him the truth: no regrets. Because I was also practicing, getting faster and stronger, but in different ways. Now, I can say something 99.9% of my classmates who went that other way can’t say.
I went pro.
Adib Khorram, author of Darius the Great Is Not Okay
One of the first pieces of advice my agent gave me after we sold my debut was to get a hobby, one that had nothing to do with writing, so that I’d have something to focus on other than all the things in publishing that are outside of my control.
I’d like to say that’s why I took up ice skating, but the truth is, I started because my friends and I were obsessed with YURI!!! ON ICE! and decided to visit the local skating rink.
It’s been a year and a half now, and I’m still at it. At first I thought I could teach myself; when I realized that wasn’t working, I signed up for Adults Learning to Skate classes. I took three sessions of that, in groups varying in size from three to ten. Unfortunately, with a group setting, there’s little time to focus on refining technique, which is what I craved.
But I really clicked with the teacher who taught my third session, and after that session ended, she and I started doing one-on-one lessons twice a month. They are challenging. They are painful. They are exhausting. They are fun. They are exhilarating.
And they require total focus. When I’m on the ice, I’m not thinking about deadlines or reviews or covers or anything. And that’s bliss.
I can’t do any jumps yet (despite what my bio says…it’s aspirational more than anything), but I’m slowly, steadily getting better. And if you’re wondering: yes, I was born to make history.
Amelinda Berube, author of The Dark Beneath the Ice
I’ve been reading tarot cards—mostly for myself—since my early teens, when a friend gave me my first deck. The answer I remember getting when I consulted the cards back then, usually about writing, boiled down to you’re doing fine, sweetie. Seven of Pentacles: growth, craft, performance, satisfaction. Eight of Pentacles: working hard, learning from a teacher. Page of Pentacles: immersion in study and comfort.
If I was confident about anything as a teenager, it was writing. The cards reflected my confidence back to me.
It’s not that I “believe in” tarot cards as some sort of external advisor or psychic channel, despite the way I portray them in The Dark Beneath the Ice. In real life, they’re more a way for me to talk to myself. All the shoulds and musts and what ifs can create so much static that I can’t hear my heart anymore: the still, small voice that speaks my truth and helps me thread the labyrinth. I turn to the cards when I don’t know what I want; when I can’t tell what’s right; when things are out of my hands. Sometimes you can’t listen to yourself unless you use a bit of subterfuge.
When I was contemplating leaving my administrative zombie job to try a carpentry program, for example, I asked the cards what I should do. The answer, unequivocally, was DO IT.
At first I refused to be reassured, thinking I was just reading into them what I wanted to hear.
But you know…I hadn’t known, until that point, what it was that I wanted to hear. And that was useful information: what I wanted. That was information I could use to make a decision.
Through the cards, I can egg myself on: jump off that cliff; take that risk; do the thing, even though it’s scary. I can dare to believe I’m doing fine. I can’t always be confident, but the cards can act as a messenger from the part of me that’s still undaunted, that can still see the stars through the smog—that knows everything will be all right.
Sara Raasch, author of The Rebel Waves
These Rebel Waves features many intentional themes: religion, classism, prejudice. But it wasn’t until I hit a certain scene in the sequel, while listening to a certain song, that I realized another theme had wormed its way in.
I started the first draft of These Rebel Waves in the midst of one of the most shredding experiences of my life. As anyone who has dealt with infertility can attest, it sucks (to put it lightly). But writing was an escape. I didn’t have to think about how my body was failing its most basic of womanly abilities; I didn’t have to do and redo ovulation math. Instead, raiders warred with religion, steamboats chugged across a magical island, and my characters were snarky and serious and lovely.
Even so, the first draft featured a shocking number of small children. When my editor pointed it out, I brushed it off as a funny coincidence, cut all but one of the children characters, and moved on. Throughout this, I managed to conceive, which was a wonder I can’t express in 300 words—but I assumed that would appease my subconscious issues.
A few months ago, I reached the aforementioned Certain Scene in the sequel, wherein one of my main characters has a heartbreaking confrontation with their parent. “Safe Inside” by James Arthur was playing, and that bittersweet combination grabbed me by the throat. I never intended to have parental relationships take such a big role in These Rebel Waves, or to help me work through the painful, phenomenal emotions of childbearing. But one of the great aspects of art is its ability to reflect the most impactful things in an artist’s life—even without the artist’s knowledge.
Paula Chase, author of So Done
I’m a world class ranter. My rants are epic.
There was the time that Toys R Us (R.I.P.) accused me of trying to sucker them for $20 in Geoffrey money after they messed up on my credit card order. That rant included me sending a letter to not only the regional manager of the company, but also the CEO and entire Board of Directors.
No, for real, the entire Board.
Got my $20 in Geoffrey money and an apology from one of the store managers, for that one.
Then, there are my Twitter rants. Let me say, threading tweets is the best invention since Velveeta shells and cheese (so creamy). It not only makes it easy for me to rant, but also makes it easier to find my tribe—other ranters.
If you don’t thread tweets at least once a week, clearly you don’t care enough about the world. Don’t @me.
The world has become a ranty place, the last few years.
Still, there’s a secret sauce to it. If done right, it lights a fire under your butt and makes you take action on things you care about. Or, you get something off your chest and can go on about your day without your head exploding.
If you rant too much, people stop listening. Especially if your rants are nasty, mean, or personal. And look, I’m totally justified in ranting against people who misrepresent who I am. But there’s no real cause for exploding over every single thing that doesn’t go my way. Let’s show a modicum of chill, shall we?
In time, I might calm down. Decrease my rants to only the serious stuff like world peace, human dignity, and when a retail outlet really really pisses me off. Until then, a girl’s gotta have a hobby, no?
Maggie Ann Martin, author of To Be Honest
My first big, fat, life-changing moment came while I was watching a TV show. I’d been watching My Mad Fat Diary, the British dramedy based on the bestselling memoir by Rae Earl, and came to a scene that made me rethink everything I’d ever thought about myself.
In this scene you see Rae (the first positive depiction of a fat teenage character I’d ever witnessed at this point) in therapy, when her therapist asks her how she views herself. He then tells her to imagine that her younger self is sitting on the couch next to her. He instructs her to tell that little girl that she is ugly and fat and worthless, everything that Rae said she felt about herself earlier. She refuses.
He then asks her, “What do you want to say to that little girl?”
She answers, “That she is fine. That she is perfect.”
“Then that’s what you need to tell yourself.”
That was the first time in my life where I really got it. I got that I’d been taught by the culture I grew up in that I wasn’t worthy of love, respect, or happiness until I lost weight. It was something that had been ingrained in me, in many of us, from a young age.
Up until this moment I had never heard a piece of media tell a fat teenage character they were fine the way they were. I knew then that I would fight every day to treat myself like I was talking to a younger me. To remind myself I was fine, and perfect, no matter what.
Leopoldo Gout, author of Genius: The Revolution
Growing up in a crazy Mexican family, I lived in an apartment with my mother, two sisters, and my brother. Although we didn’t have a lot of money, my mother flooded the apartment with books, all of which I devoured. Through those books, I discovered the world is big and ready to be explored and my secret three mantras were born. If you follow them, you can change your stars.
CURIOSITY—stay curious about everything and everyone around you. This will keep your juice flowing and will help you find: The FIRE—doing what you do with passion. Curiosity is the oxygen the fire needs to keep roaring. Lastly, lose the FEAR of failure. Only with Curiosity and Fire, you will have an Arsenal to fight fear and keep moving.
Over and over again, I’ve found this to be true. After studying art in London and settling in New York City, my love and curiosity for the world, people, and other cultures has only grown. In my own work, whatever the medium—art, film, food, writing—that love is something I continually explore.
Just as reading books and looking at art were tools to comprehend the world as a kid, creating one as an adult has been a massive wonderful journey. In making my latest trilogy Genius, its research led me to speak with kid geniuses from all nationalities; from China to Africa. The book explores how kids can find their magic to change the world. My research introduced me to people of all ages and genders who are changing their experience through their imagination; no matter how little power or money they may physically have. We all have a wonderful superpower—our minds and our curiosity. No matter who you are and what your place is in this world, we can all change our stars and do something great for everyone else. The big idea is to leave this planet a little better, which is the opposite of what the current politicians in power say. My hope is with the young people, who engage politically, march, and are standing against the current tyranny. Because the one thing that this president has proven is that he lacks curiosity, imagination, and fire.
Alice Reeds, author of Echoes
I used to hate reading.
Sounds kind of bizarre, doesn’t it, especially coming from an author, but it’s true. Growing up, unlike many of my peers, I didn’t read Harry Potter. I didn’t read anything at all. Whenever we had to read a book for school or in class, I would be bored, wonder why anyone would do something so torturous out of their free will and why teachers were so mean as to force us to do this. I simply didn’t get it.
Then, when I was fourteen, I was at my grandma’s for autumn break. She loves books and owns many. One fateful day I was just looking at her bookshelves, as you do when you’re bored, don’t have internet, and your friends aren’t replying to your texts. A book caught my eye, an old, small, and thin one, though part of a series that spanned more than twenty tomes.
I didn’t like the cover, thought the title was a bit strange, and was most intrigued by the price because it seemed so ridiculous to me. Who in their right mind would pay 19.800 PLN for a book? That’s half the price of a car! I didn’t know that back when the book was bought, inflation in Poland was going crazy.
Despite it all, I sat down, opened the book to the first chapter, and suddenly two weeks had passed and I was on book eight. It took me years and a series of books no one I know has ever heard of to finally realize that books are amazing, that reading is just as fun, or even more so, as watching movies or shows.
Ten years later I own more than three hundred books and spend more time writing my own than doing anything else.
Amy Reed, editor of Our Stories, Our Voices
I was a really shy kid. Like painfully shy.
But my mother still likes to gush about what a perfect child I was (until age thirteen, when I abruptly became the opposite). I did everything I was told. I didn’t cry. I didn’t ask for anything. To her, not speaking made me perfect.
She doesn’t understand that the reason I didn’t speak was because I didn’t think I had permission. Because I was afraid. Because I was so full of shame, I didn’t believe I deserved to be heard.
My family communicated with silence. I grew up with the understanding that my parents didn’t like each other, and from a young age I believed I was the glue that bound our dysfunctional family together; I thought it was my fault we were all so miserable. I would often pray that my parents would get a divorce. Maybe then the pressure I always felt would be relieved. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to figure out what everyone else was feeling before I could know what I could feel, what I could say.
I found my voice as I grew into myself, as I began to see my identity as something I could create outside my family of origin. I gained confidence by finding my strengths. I started writing, and it was there where I began to find my voice. I had to write before I could speak.
I do not think of myself as a shy person anymore. I am an introvert, but I can hold my own at parties and conferences. I can even (gasp!) mingle if I have to. Because I am no longer filled with shame. I do not define myself by how others are feeling. I know I deserve to be heard. We all do.